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It's only a few weeks until Christmas, and that can only mean one thing: it's time to break out the Muppets! And if you've been following MCFTR for any period of time, then you're probably painfully aware that we (except, of course, for Terry, the heartless bastard that he is) have sort of a soft spot for those little Jim Henson creations. The Muppets are a pop culture institution, still going strong long after they passing of their creator. And at no time of the year do the Muppets start infiltrating the airwaves more often than during those winter holidays.
It didn't just end with THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, which ranks at #6 on our Retarded Christmas Top Ten. There was actually a second Christmastime feature-length outing from the Muppets, although it was not a theatrical offering. As recently as the year 2002, in fact, the Muppets debuted this second feature on NBC. This time, rather than updating a classic Dickens novel, the Muppets tried their hand at the Frank Capra classic IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
The result was IT'S A VERY MUPPET CHRISTMAS, which I regrettably missed last year when it initially ran. I mean, I love the Muppets, I love IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and I love Christmas, so it almost seems criminal that I would bypass checking out the premiere of this movie. Fortunately, I was able to redeem myself by picking up a copy on video. And believe it or not, this is actually the best thing that's come from the foam and felt players in quite some time.
Now, I liked the Muppets' take on A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island as much as you'd expect the average Hensonphile to, but I can admit that they just lacked something that previous Muppet efforts had. Perhaps it was the idea of Muppets in roles other than themselves that threw it off, I'm not sure. MUPPETS FROM SPACE went back to being an original story about the Henson characters, but it was also lacking the magic that The Muppet Show and the earlier Muppet features displayed. A VERY MUPPET CHRISTMAS starts out by getting some of the basics right: We're back in the Muppet theater, the characters are familiar, and the humor is dead on. So let's take a look at this thing, shall we?
Loosely following the basic storyline of the Capra film it's based on, we start out with Kermit the Frog walking into the Muppet theater on Christmas Eve, where his fellow Muppets are singing and carrying on in the Christmas spirit. Of course, Kermit is upset. He's lost everything. The theater is about to be foreclosed on. He doesn't feel much desire to live, much less celebrate the holidays with other foam animals. He wanders out into the cold night and has a seat on a park bench, doomed to be a frogsicle very soon. You see, frogs are cold-blooded, so Kermit's not going to last very long on that bench in freezing temperatures. Sure, in the original, George Bailey's rush to toss himself off a bridge was a trifle more dramatic, but we're dealing with a movie aimed at kids here.
Fortunately, Kermit has a guardian angel. This time, however, his name isn't Clarence and he isn't represented on screen by a bright star. His name is Daniel, he's played by David Arquette, and he works in a glowing white cubicle somewhere in the offices of Heaven Industries, LLC. Daniel feels the urge to take action in this case, but his fellow cubicle dwellers don't pay him much mind. He decides to go to the "boss", who unfortunately is played by Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg joins a long line of unlikely actors playing the role of Yahweh, following such names as George Burns, Alanis Morrissette, and Morgan Freeman. Anyway, God-berg lets Daniel plead his case, and they watch Kermit's life unfurl on a plasma screen television amidst the meadows of heaven.
Now, I can dig the use of humans in the Muppet Movies, but we get way too much interaction between Goldberg and Arquette here. It might help if there were some more palateable stars up on that screen for this scene than the Center Square on the New New New "Hollywood Squares" and the former WCW World Heavyweight Champion, but it's still too much human for my tastes. Despite that, it's not too distracting from the rest of the film.
Getting back to Kermit's life, we see the Muppets in preparation of one of their stage shows. Of course, in the original, George Bailey's life is traced back to his childhood, but in this adaptation we're only presented the events that directly lead up to the fall of Kermit's empire. Sure, the intensive character study was one of the best thing about IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but it's not really needed here: Kermit is Kermit, and to paraphrase Harold Melvin, if you don't know him by now, you will never never never know him. Plus, we don't really need them just hashing lines through the Robin puppet's eyes just to prove a point here. And we really don't want to go too far back in time, lest we want to see a tadpole puppet swimming around, and something about that just isn't very appealing. Anyway, to stay on track, Kermit and the gang are approached by Mrs. Bitterman, the widow of the friendly bank owner that they've been dealing with for ages. She wants to turn the Muppet theater into a seedy night club, and is even willing to cheat the poor defenseless puppets out of their contract to do it. She even enlists the services of Pepe the King Prawn as her personal assistant, resulting in way too many sexual innuendos and double entendres for a Muppet movie.
When Pepe finally lets Kermit know of the debauchery that's going on, and that the evil Mrs. Bitterman has changed the payment deadline to 6 PM, Kermit sends Fozzie, assuming the Uncle Billy role from the original, to deposit the money. Unfortunately, due to a couple of unnecessary spoofs of Crocodile Hunter and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he loses the money and all is lost. Of course, if it's not odd enough that a bad imitation of Steve Irwin is hunting Fozzie on a busy street during Christmas, it's even weirder that there are random Whos just wandering the street thinking a green-dyed Fozzie is The Grinch - and even weirder that they hate him so much considering how that Grinch story ends. But still, the subsequent failure of Fozzie to get the money deposited in time leads us right to where we began, with a suicidal frog preparing to become an iced amphibian.
God-berg sends Daniel to Earth to bail out Kermit, equipped with a copy of Performing Miracles for Dummies. He thaws out our froggy friend, who does not appreciate his bid to help him, repeatedly yelling "I Wish I were never born!" in a way-over-the-top parody of the original. So Daniel, as we expect, takes Kermit into the alternate reality of what it would be like if that were indeed the case. Gonzo is a homeless street performer, Fozzie is a pickpocket, Bunsen and Beaker are night club bouncers, Miss Piggy is a lonely Miss Cleo clone with an apartment full of cats, and Scooter creeps me out by being a caged nightclub dancer. Eek. So Kermit decides that maybe it is all worth it after all, and wants to return to normal and celebrate with all of his Muppety pals as he knows them.
What works here works well, as the writers have gone back to a lot of what worked with the original Muppet series and cut out a lot of chaff. There's a ton of jokes that are strictly geared to the more mature audience too, which are tucked subtely enough into the script to not be too upsetting to the kids out there. But where this particular Muppet outing shines is in some of the effort it makes to stay updated and reach a younger audience. There's a ton of current pop culture references, and surprisingly, they don't do too much to distract from the overall quality of the end product. Hell, there's even a homosexual muppet worked in, and I'm not talking about Scooter.
Now, that being said, there may be a little too much of the NBC whoring going on here. At times the special feels like it could easily be put up on the big screen and fit in as seamlessly as previous Muppet features, but there's a lot of moments where you feel like you're watching a giant NBC commercial. Cameos from Kelly Ripa and Molly Shannon as themselves get worked in, while there is footage worked in from Fear Factor and a taping of Scrubs involved. There's even a moment where great puppets collide, as Triumph The Insult Comic Dog tells Kermit that the Muppets are wonderful...for him to poop on. Yeah, a lot of it seems gratuitious, but I think that's the idea. They even seem to parody their own overplugging of the NBC thing when Kermit displays the Peacock logo on the bottom of his foot.
But still, beyond that, this is probably the best thing the Muppets have done in nearly twenty years. There's a lot of time spent parodying current movies, including a long spoof of MOULIN ROUGE!, a film that I'd suspect most of the kids watching had never seen. There's some subtle nods to CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and A BEAUTIFUL MIND as well, others that may have gone over the younger crowd's heads. Of course, there are nods to more classic Christmas tales as well, including a "triple frog dare" to a young toad to stick his tongue to a flagpole and a small cameo by the voice of Mel Brooks as a snowman narrator. He even gets called a "Burl Ives wannabe" at one point. They even work in a cameo by Yoda, and if you didn't know better, you'd swear Frank Oz was on board for this one. Oh, and there's a Doc Hopper's reference worked in for good measure. Very nice.
Most of the classic Muppets return, but due to the ensemble nature of the story, many of the old favorites get shoved into the background. Pepe is the only of the post-Henson characters that gets a decent amount of screen time, and some of that generation are missing (Clifford is nowhere to be found, which is completely odd considering how overused he was on Muppets Tonight and in MUPPETS FROM SPACE.) Fozzie, Piggy, and Gonzo, as expected, still get the majority of time on screen. And Statler and Waldorf get a lot of chances to shine, despite the fact that neither of them sound anywhere close to how they should.
Of course, that leads us to the Muppeteers themselves. Jim Henson and Richard Hunt, of course, are no longer with us, and as I mentioned earlier, Frank Oz was unable to participate in this one due to his busy schedule. Dave Goelz and Jerry Nelson are the only original Muppet players still on board for this one, but for the most part, they do a great job of covering up the fact that your favorite voice actors are MIA. Eric Jacobson does a nearly flawless job imitating Frank Oz characters Miss Piggy and Fozzy Bear.
As far as the human players go, there's some that work well and some that seem to just wander aimlessly. William H. Macy does a whole lot of nothing as a coworker of Daniel's, and Matthew Lillard is more annoying as usual in his role as a French consultant. Whoopi Goldberg does her best to not annoy me too much, and David Arquette may be as likeable here as he's ever going to get. Joan Cusack is about as devious as you're going to get as Mrs. Bitterman, and fits in well with the long line of Muppet Movie villains.
While it does at times feel like it belongs relegated to television with things like commercial gaps and the aformentioned corporate shilling, overall, A VERY MUPPET CHRISTMAS compares quite well to the other features that have come from Jim Henson Productions. It's also a nice little update of a classic Christmas film that captures the important elements of the original without desecrating it. It's also a fitting tribute, considering that the names of two of Henson's signature characters, Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, were inspired by IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE to begin with. Kinda brings everything full circle, I guess.
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